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Thu Apr 24 10:26:20 SAST 2014

Cold War edge as US women beat North Korea

Estelle Shirbon, Reuters | 01 August, 2012 08:240 Comments
Alex Morgan and Kelley O'Hara (L) of the US celebrate as North Korea players react to losing their women's football first round Group G match at Old Trafford in Manchester during the London 2012 Olympic Games July 31, 2012
Image by: Andrea Comas / REUTERS

The US women’s soccer team beat North Korea 1-0 on Tuesday in a politically charged Olympic clash between the isolated Asian country and the global superpower it has loathed since they fought a Cold War conflict six decades ago.

A mixture of curious Britons and enthusiastic Americans piled into the stands at Old Trafford, home of English Premier League club Manchester United, to watch the contest, with no North Korean spectators in evidence.

In contrast to last week, when the same North Korean team walked off the pitch before a match because giant screens accidentally displayed the flag of their South Korean foes, Tuesday’s match got off to a smooth start.

The blunder brought politics to the fore ahead of the clash with the Americans, whose former President George W. Bush once branded North Korea part of an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq.

The hostility is very much a live issue in world diplomacy, with Washington intent on frustrating the North’s nuclear armaments plans and Pyongyang seemingly impervious to external pressure.

“It definitely adds a little bit of extra drama to this match, like in the Cold War when the Americans would play the Russians,” said Californian Christina Gustafson, sporting a shirt and strings of beads in patriotic red, white and blue.

She was among crowds of Americans, many waving flags or wearing USA sunglasses or hats, who converged on Manchester. But the stands at Old Trafford, a 75000-seat stadium, appeared less than a third full.

The American players smiled at supporters as they walked out onto the pitch, while the North Korean players looked straight ahead and did not smile. When the players shook hands just before kick-off, some of the Americans attempted smiles and eye-contact with their opponents, who remained stony-faced.

At the end of the match, the American players lingered on the pitch and linked their hands to do a collective wave for the fans. After perfunctory handshakes, the North Koreans jogged off the pitch in a straight line. 

It would be difficult to imagine a sporting contest between two more different nations.

On the one hand, a global economic powerhouse whose cultural influence can be felt across the globe, a society hooked on 24-hour media and the Internet, a land of plenty where the number one threat to public health is the high obesity rate.

On the other, an impenetrable fortress run by a dynasty of dictators, cut off from the rest of the planet by barbed wire and strict controls over any form of communication, an economic disaster zone where millions go short of food.

During the match, mass chants of “USA! USA!” repeatedly boomed around the stadium. At one point, a group of British fans apparently in the mood to annoy the Americans shouted “Korea! Korea!” but there was no other audible cheering for the Asians.

Some of the Americans in the stands were keen to show respect to their opponents.

“The Olympics is about sportsmanship and athletics, it’s not about politics,” said Oliver Spandow, from Florida, who was cheering for the Americans with his wife and three children. The whole family had the Stars and Stripes painted on their faces.

“It’s important to show good sportsmanship, that’s what we’ve told the kids. The North Korean players have worked hard to be here just like our team and they deserve to be here,” said Kristin Spandow, Oliver’s wife. 

North Korea is an impressive fifth in the Olympics medals table so far, drawing enthusiastic coverage from the official news agency, KCNA.

“DPRK People Seized with Joy over Successes in Olympiad,” said one KCNA headline on Tuesday. The DPRK is the acronym of the North’s full name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“As the DPRK flag was hoisting higher than others, I got so excited that I could hardly repress my tears rolling down my cheek,” said Jong In-ho, a teacher at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, according to KCNA.

Organisers of London 2012 will be relieved that there were no errors such as the flag fiasco at Old Trafford.

One supporter of the North Koreans, British pensioner David Greenhough, expressed his own frustration at the mix-up.

“I was spitting feathers over the flag incident,” said Greenhough, who was carrying a large North Korean flag and described himself as an independent Marxist historian.

The North Korean women’s team won the 2008 Asian Football Confederation’s tournament. But they were caught up in scandal at the 2011 women’s World Cup in Germany, where five of the players tested positive for banned steroids.

North Korean officials said at the time that players had taken some traditional Chinese medication based on musk deer glands to help them recover from a lighting strike during a training match in North Korea weeks before the tournament.

The North Korean men’s team claimed their place in sporting history during the 1966 World Cup in England when they knocked out favourites Italy in one of the greatest upsets ever.

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